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Doorstop, Parliament House, 1 June 2023

Senator Henderson: Today is a very grim day for some three million Australians, who will be hit with an increase in their student HECS debt and other student debts of 7.1 per cent. This comes at a time when so many Australians are facing a cost-of-living crisis. This will drive up the average HECS loan by some $1,700, and today I am calling on the Government to come up with solutions to help students pay down their student debt. I am very concerned that the Education Minister, Jason Clare, is tone deaf to the cost-of-living crisis so many Australians are facing. He said, as reported in the Australian Financial Review today, that – any changes to the HECS system won’t help students today. This is a very regrettable remark and shows that he has no interest in what so many Australians are facing with this escalating increase in their student debt.

The Opposition is calling on the Government to immediately cancel the Startup Year loan scheme, which has the potential to impose a full-fee paying debt of up to $23,000 on student entrepreneurs doing an accelerated course. This is a nonsense of a scheme. This is a scheme which will provide loans for courses that students are currently doing at no cost, like the UTS Startup Hub. So that’s one immediate step that the government can take. I’m also calling on the Government to immediately reform the ATO tax payments system, because at the moment, the ATO is charging students indexation for loans that they have already paid off. This is an antiquated system. I’ve raised this in Estimates, and I am deeply concerned that today the Education Minister sees no need to change the system. That’s an immediate step the Government can take. It’s unjust, it’s unfair, and it needs to be fixed. Happy to take any questions.

Question: Senator Henderson, the Greens and other crossbenchers have been calling for the Government to scrap indexation, or otherwise to at least change the minimum repayment, boost it back to the median wage. Are those kinds of things you’d like the Government to do?

Senator Henderson: Well, I have to say there’s been a lot of bipartisan support for the HECS student loan scheme over a long period of time, and over the last decade there’s been an average indexation rate of two per cent. It’s been a remarkably good scheme over so many years. We are not in government. I’ve put forward some immediate solutions that the Government can change to make things fairer for students. But as I’ve said today, I am calling on the Government to consider options to help students pay down the debt. The Education Minister, Jason Clare, has been missing in action on this critical issue, at a critical time for so many Australians feeling cost-of-living pressures, and it is time the Government stepped up.

Question: He met with some of the crossbenchers last night and I just checked what he said. He said that there will be an assessment of the HECS-HELP system, as part of the Universities Accord process. Is that something you…

Senator Henderson: Well, that contradicts what he said in the Australian Financial Review just this morning, as reported, when he says that any change to the HECS scheme will not help students at all with their obligations today. And already we are seeing the mortgage broking industry saying that an increase in student debt, and of course most of those who have a debt are now working Australians, will impact on their ability to borrow. So, it appears that the Education Minister is all at sea, but very significantly, we have not seen any action from this government. This government knows that this has been coming for many, many months, and we’re seeing stubbornly high inflation and no solution in sight. And it is time we saw action from the Government.

Question: Did you have concerns about the HECS-HELP system when you were in government?

Senator Henderson: Well as I say, over the last decade, and in fact there hasn’t been an increase like this since 1990. So, there’s been a lot of bipartisan support for a scheme – over the last decade, as I say, the indexation rate has been on average two per cent. It is a scheme that has supported thousands upon thousands of Australians complete higher education. But now with these escalating indexation rates, sky high, at a time when Australians are struggling to put food on the table, at a time when Australians are struggling to pay their mortgage, to pay their rent, it is absolutely shocking that we are seeing no solutions from this government. Thank you very much, everyone. Thank you.

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